Diversity & Inclusion
Internet / Municipal government

Drexel’s digital navigators shift their awareness efforts to the Affordable Connectivity Program

As the City of Philadelphia encourages low-income residents to sign up for the federal internet subsidy, this group is working to get more West Philadelphians connected by leveraging their community connections.

Digital navigators Rich Dollery and Laura Sato. (Photo by Sarah Huffman)
Correction: The organizational structure of the West Philadelphia Promise Neighborhood has been clarified. (3/29/23, 2:30 p.m.)
Efforts to expand digital equity in Philadelphia are shifting as city officials aim to bring awareness to a year-old federal internet subsidy program.

The City of Philadelphia’s pandemic-launched PHLConnectED subsidy for home internet will be ending in July 2023. In its place, local digital equity advocates are encouraging low-income Philadelphians to switch over to or sign up for the federal Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) program.

ACP provides up to a $30 discount each month toward broadband services. Nearly 17 million United States households, including more than 570,000 in Pennsylvania, have enrolled since its launch in December 2021. (The program replaced the Emergency Broadband Benefit launched in May 2021 via federal stimulus dollars.) This benefit is available to all households that meet certain income requirements, unlike PHLConnectED, which was only available to families with school-aged children.

PHLConnectED’s other services, such as the 211 hotline, access to digital navigators and relationships with schools, will continue on even as ACP is promoted, according to Ashley Pollard, digital inclusion manager for the City’s Office of Innovation and Technology.

Included in the efforts to spread the word about ACP is the City’s Digital Navigator program, which connects residents with trained pros who can help them with technology challenges and digital resources. Drexel University’s own Digital Navigator program hit the ground running with this initiative at an open house last week.

History of Drexel’s Digital Navigator program

The Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships was filled with community members and cupcakes this past Tuesday during Drexel’s digital navigators open house. The goal was to spread the word about digital navigator services and the ACP to the community surrounding the University City-based school.

Drexel’s team, hosted by the university’s ExCITe Center, is one of three Digital Navigator programs in Philadelphia. The other two are hosted by SEAMAAC and Beyond Literacy (the org resulting from a spring 2021 merger between the Center for Literacy and Community Learning Center). These teams assist Philly residents with using the internet, accessing free or low-cost devices, offering digital literacy workshops, and other services related to digital equity.

(Here’s a 2021 deep dive on digital navigators’ work in Philadelphia and Baltimore.)

Andy Stutzman, project director for civic technology at the ExCITe Center, said when the Digital Navigator program at Drexel started in the summer of 2020, it was staffed by co-op students, and their services were entirely virtual. Since then, the program has added in-person components, including a community outreach team made up of people from the community they serve, plus tabling three times a week. This work comes in partnership with the West Philadelphia Promise Neighborhood (WPPN), a grant-funded program that is part of Drexel’s Office of University and Community Partnerships, formed thanks to a grant from the US Department of Education to support families in certain West Philly neighborhoods.

Meet the digital navigators

As experts have said before, programs like ACP can only become widespread if it’s easy for residents to sign up for them. Stakeholders such as the digital navigators have the responsibility to make that as easy as possible, especially for people with less tech experience.

That’s where people like Rich Dollery, Hyden Terrell and Christina Brown come in.

Dollery works for Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health in WPPN field operations, and is among the community members who became involved with the digital navigators’ outreach team to spread the word about the new-at-the-time PHLConnectED program earlier in the pandemic.

“Within my own community, when there was such a need at that particular time, it was extremely rewarding to be able to do something that directly impacted people.”Rich Dollery Digital Navigators, ExCITe Center

At Drexel’s open house, which saw a steady stream of attendees over a few hours, Dollery told Technical.ly he’s happy to be able to provide a free service to the community — especially because many people are skeptical of accepting a service that has no strings attached, he said. Working with the team has been personal to him because he resides in West Philadelphia himself and has a school-aged daughter. He knew of people in the area who struggled to find internet or access to a device for virtual school.

“Within my own community, when there was such a need at that particular time, it was extremely rewarding to be able to do something that directly impacted people,” he said.

For her part, Terrell became a digital navigator because she wanted to help ensure that more students in Philly, specifically Black and brown students, have access to the internet to do their schoolwork. Brown, also a digital navigator, echoed Terrell, saying that students shouldn’t have to leave their home to get internet or miss school because they don’t have access.

Terrell’s favorite part of the job is engaging with community members in person at events like the open house. Brown agreed: “Engagement, being with people,” she said. “I like to see people happy and then take advantage of different resources. I enjoy communicating with people.”

A team of community members

Stutzman said the digital navigators are trying to reach more people through in-person services. The open house event served as a kickoff event for monthly workshops targeted at older adults to teach them internet safety basics and how to use devices. Stutzman also hopes more West Philadelphians will bring in their devices when they have questions or concerns.

These in-person initiatives are able to happen because Stutzman has been able to bring on more full-time staff to the Digital Navigator program, he said. It’s important to him that the team is now made up of community members, rather than just Drexel co-op students.

“They know the community, as well. It’s a big change. We can draw people into these kinds of events, make the connections we need to make to get the word out there about the Affordable Connectivity Program, which a lot of people don’t trust,” Stutzman said. “That’s from the government. They’re not sure about it. They don’t want to deal with it. So we’re trying to earn that trust. It’s helpful when we have folks from the community.”

Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Companies: City of Philadelphia / Drexel University / ExCITe Center / U.S. Government / Office of Innovation and Technology

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